Fourteen years ago this coming Friday. Where were you? Many will ask that question and we will remember like it was yesterday where we were, what we were doing, and the emotions we felt when we first got the news on September 11, 2001. We remember it personally: “I was going to work and it came on the radio.” “My wife called me and told me to turn on the television.” “Everyone’s cell phone started ringing in my office.” “My daughter was on a business trip and I just needed to hear her voice and know she was okay.”
We remember it collectively, together. Common memories like this are rare and happen only once in a generation, if at all: The attack on Pearl Harbor. The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was struck down. When the Challenger exploded. Some common memories are joyous: When the war finally ended. When we saw the first man land on the moon.
In the act of remembering we make choices about how those memories are understood and then shape us. We make choices about what we will hold on to from the past and what we will let go of. So, fourteen years later, what will we remember? What do we want to hold on to and never, ever forget and what do we want to let go of and leave behind?
I want to remember the unity we felt as a nation. In the days following 9/11 I felt more American than I ever have. Not in some triumphant way, but in sympathy and love. Why does it take a crisis like 9/11 to create such an atmosphere of mutual care and dependence on one another? Do you remember how everyone wanted to help in some way? Do you remember the millions who gave blood and donated supplies? Do you remember the thousands of first responders who came from all over the country to assist in the rescue effort? Do you remember how churches were packed with people praying? Do you remember the stories that made us cheer and weep of firefighters rushing into the burning towers to save as many as they could? “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Let us remember those things.
But there are some things I want to forget. I want to forget how afraid we were…and still are. A pervasive collective fear that can bring out the worst of human behavior; fear based on suspicion which still drives some Americans to stereotype, malign, even attack Muslims or anyone who doesn’t look or pray or act like “us”. I want to forget the ugly side of religion which appeared on 9/11…a fundamentalist brand of religion which insists upon a very narrow and cruel image of God. Let us forget those things.
On a bright and beautiful blue sky, some 5,110 days ago, 9/11 happened. Do you remember? What will we finally learn from it? Has it changed us for the better or for the worst? I don’t think we can fully answer those questions yet. But this we can do: remember and forget. Let us remember and honor the dead and the lost and the real heroes of that horrible day and how united we were. Let us forget the ways 9/11 has made us a more frightened people.
Memories can save us and memories can condemn us. The choice is ours.
You are loved,